Only 8 per cent of pancreatic cancer patients survive longer than five years but a new clinical trial being brought to New Zealand early next year could change that.
Pancreatic cancer has the lowest survival rate among all major cancers with more than 560 New Zealanders diagnosed with and 520 people dying from it each year.
The only cure is surgery but only 10 per cent of Kiwi patients are diagnosed early enough for that to be an option. Even with surgery, the majority of patients will have a relapse.
It is projected to be New Zealand's fourth biggest cancer killer by 2025, behind only lung, bowel and prostate.
But, speaking ahead of World Pancreatic Cancer Day today, Gut Cancer Foundation chief executive Liam Willis said there was hope for those fighting the "very, very aggressive form of cancer".
Thanks to the foundation's fundraising, the Masterplan clinical trial would start recruiting New Zealand patients early next year and could save or extend the lives of six Kiwis with advanced pancreatic cancer.
The Australasian Gastro-Intestinal Cancer Clinical Trials Group study was investigating whether Stereotactic Radiotherapy could increase patients' eligibility for surgery by more effectively shrinking the tumour and reducing the likelihood of the disease recurring.
The trial would also look at whether the type of radiotherapy, in which radiotherapy is delivered in a higher dose without damaging other tissue because it is delivered from a number of different angles around the body, could also improve life expectancy and quality of life for patients whose tumour is too advanced for surgery.
"Bringing this kind of trial to New Zealand will give some local patients access to a new treatment much sooner than they would otherwise have. However, all too often these opportunities are not available as funding in New Zealand is very limited for these trials," Willis said.
While the trial held promise, it would be years before the results were fully known, he said.
Willis said part of the reason the survival figures were so "horrific" was because there were often no symptoms in its early stages and when there were, they were hard to spot.
That meant the cancer had often spread by the time it was caught so the only option for many was chemotherapy or radiation therapy which, in most cases, only extended people's lives or improved the quality of life in their last weeks and months, he said.
For New Plymouth woman Karrie Meyer, finding out she had pancreatic cancer "kind of felt like a death sentence".
But, a year later she knows she was "one of the lucky ones".
Meyer, 41, went to the doctor last November with digestive problems and an ultrasound discovered a completely separate problem - an 8cm mass on her pancreas.
"I wasn't sure how I was going to go after I learnt about the survival rate."
The woman, who had given birth to her second child three months earlier, had a CT scan where spots were found on her liver leading doctors to believe the cancer had spread.
"I thought I only had months left," she said. "Just having young children and thinking about not being there for them. I didn't feel like I had a future to look forward to."
She had surgery to remove the tumour on her pancreas in December. Test results showed her liver was fine and the cancer was a rare, non-aggressive form.
A year later, regular check-ups show she remains cancer-free but it's still hard for her to accept.
"I think what's really hard about this cancer is that you can have it and not know about it."
Professor Michael Findlay, medical oncologist and founding board member of the Gut Cancer Foundation said diagnosing pancreatic cancer was particularly tricky.
"The pancreas itself sits in a fairly silent area of the body in the back of the belly and is responsible for the production and management of our insulin levels and digestive enzymes. However, it's at an anatomical crossroads where a lot of things are passing by so can be quite difficult to treat."
Willis urged people to see a doctor if they felt something was not right - especially for those with increased risk factors which included smokers, overweight people, a family history of pancreatic cancer, pancreatitis and diabetes.
"You know your body. If something doesn't feel right and if something is recurring or it's a new symptom then go and get it checked out."
Common symptoms of pancreatic cancer:
• Mid-back pain
• Unexplained weight-loss
• Loss of appetite
• Stomach pain
• New-onset diabetes
• Jaundice (yellowish eyes or skin)
• Changes in stool
Source: Gut Cancer Foundation